James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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The physics of winning physiques: Are Olympic athletes born or made?

Dr James Le Fanu looks at the evidence.

DRUG scandals apart, the Olympics glorify the diversity of the human physique. No one should feel left out: the tall and the short, the slender and the massive, the musclebound and the skinny, each have their own special events in which they are most likely to excel.

In a fascinating study, The Physique of the Olympic Athlete, by Dr J. M. Tanner, 140 male competitors in the 1960 Olympics in Rome were subjected to 14 separate anthropometric measurements – height, shoulder width, leg circumference, etc – on the basis of which they were categorised according to where they fell on the gradient, from mesomorphic (a classical Herculean build), to ectomorphic (long and skinny) to endomorphic (round and jolly).

The result is most clearly seen in the virtually nude photographs of the athletes with which the book is illustrated.

The short, muscular mesomorphic 100m sprinters are quite distinct from the lean, ectomorphic 5,000m competitors, who are different again from the unusually tall (because long-legged) hurdlers and high jumpers and the massively broad-shouldered javelin throwers.

Dr Tanner was particularly intrigued as to why some events are dominated by one racial group and tried to elucidate the nature of their genetically-determined biological advantage.

For example, the supreme athletic challenge, the 100m – the winner of which can uniquely claim to be the fastest man on earth (maximum speed 23mph) – is dominated by Afro-Americans. Seven of the past eight record-holders, from Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936 to Ben Johnson in Seoul in 1988, have come from this stock.

Leaving aside Johnson’s dalliance with the anabolic steroid Stanazol during the last Olympics, the reason seems to be that they have, compared to whites, a lighter, slimmer body but similar muscular strength in the legs.

They thus have a higher power-to-total-weight ratio, which inevitably allows them to get to the finishing line faster.

Furthermore, their centre of gravity starts higher in the body than in whites, which also gives them a biological advantage in the 110m hurdles and the high jump.

By contrast, Asians have short legs relative to their trunks, which is particularly advantageous in weight-lifting, and indeed their superiority in this event has been clearly demonstrated in the past week.

To the perennial question as to whether athletes are born or made, Dr Tanner replies, not surprisingly, it is a bit of both.

‘The basic body structure must be present for the possibility of becoming an athlete to arise. Thereafter there must be the wish to be an athlete, the overpowering will to succeed, and the circumstances which make time-consuming training a possibility.’

IT IS always pleasing to be vindicated. Exactly a year ago in this column I criticised the Aids experts for fiddling with statistics to show that the HIV virus is spreading rapidly among the general population.

I pointed out that the rise in the number of heterosexually-transmitted Aids cases was confined almost exclusively to those already in at-risk groups, or their partners. The risk of anyone else contracting Aids by casual heterosexual intercourse is comparable to that of being struck dead by lightning.

A fortnight ago, Panorama came to the same conclusion and the Chief Medical Officer, it seems, is so sensitive about the issue that he effectively refused to be interviewed. If, by chance, he reads this column, I’d like to make two suggestions about how he can counteract some of the unnecessary alarm propagated by experts over the past few years.

Firstly, our health ‘education’ campaigns directed at schoolchildren, especially the 11 to 13-year-old age group, should stop. I’m sorry to see that even the saintly Cardinal Basil Hulme has been taken in by the falsehood that ‘everyone is at risk’ and has sanctioned teaching Catholic schoolchildren the details and dangers of unnatural sexual acts. They are not at risk and it would be good to think that their innocence about such matters might be preserved for a few more years.

Secondly, the vast army of administrators, counsellors, advisers and general hangers-on that have flourished in response to the mythical heterosexual Aids epidemic needs to be vigorously curtailed. No one seems to know how many there are but in Manchester alone, which has reported only 18 Aids cases so far, 57 people are employed full time by the health authority and a further 15 are paid for by voluntary organisations as Aids activists and counsellors. In addition, the local council is spending pounds 1.13 million on Aids ‘awareness’ schemes and the NHS a further pounds 2.6 million.

If the Chief Medical Officer is uncertain how this scandalous waste of public resources could be better spent, I’ll be delighted to offer him a few suggestions.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd